Tim Peterson, Associate Editor
Ideology: Left-Independent | Writing from: New York
I’m torn on CA Prop. 14—the measure that, having been passed with an overwhelming majority, will institute open primaries in the Golden State with the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advancing to the general election.
On the one hand, the Darwinian in me likes the idea of flattening the field into more of a meritocracy. On the other, the native Californian in me—who, disenfranchised by age, witnessed the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state’s consequential collapse—fears the negative possibilities of kingmaker power being handed to an electorate of such miscellaneous political engagement (also doesn’t help that the Governator is an outspoken supporter of Prop. 14). And the amateur political scientist in me is kicking himself with curiosity.
California would not be the first state with an open primary system—Louisiana employed it for three decades until closing Senate and House primaries in 2007, although the state is on the verge of reversing itself once again—but its diverse electorate and the high stakes involved would prove perhaps the most compelling electoral experiment in some time.
With that in mind, I was hoping to hypothesize its effects on this year’s CA gubernatorial election. No dice.
First, one would have to imagine that the increased significance would result in a higher Democratic turnout. This year’s primary was of more consequence for California Republicans than Democrats, leading to an unbalanced turnout. Second, to play devil’s advocate, by removing party puppetmasters, it’s feasible that more California elections will resemble the 2003 recall election, which led to Schwarzenegger’s governorship and included Larry Flynt the late Gary Coleman and a porn star as candidates. That is, there are possibilities for the type of electoral manipulation normally reserved for a Chris Rock comedy. Conversely, pitting 2003’s top two vote-getters—Schwarzenegger and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante—against each other in a run-off may have resulted differently.
It’s a fool’s errand to conjecture Prop. 14’s impact. It’s a test of a Jeffersonian democracy versus a Hamiltonian one: To what extent can the general public be trusted? But it is my hope that the outcome favors neither Jefferson nor Hamilton but Madison, the author of the Virginia Plan who, writes Gordon Wood in Revolutionary Characters, “expected that the clashing interests and passions in the enlarges national Republic would neutralize themselves in the society and allow liberally educated, rational men—men, he said, ‘whose enlightened view and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices, and to schemes of injustice’—to decide questions of the public good in a disinterested adjudicatory manner.”
Which is all to say, I’m cautiously optimistic.